The Who guitarist Pete Townshend’s style of playing is different from most. Some guitar players may emphasise the fretwork; Townshend’s playing is very rhythmic. He shifts his attention to his right-hand which doing all the strumming.
As a result, his playing is deceivingly simple and balanced by an aggressive style of strumming and picking, coupled with unique chordal structures. His right-hand wrist is constantly finding the little pockets of space within the music, which, when coupled with Keith Moon’s cacophonous but always bizarrely in-time playing, The Who as a unit, can exist in the entirety of the musical spectrum in regards to dynamics.
Pete Townshend’s first single for The Who was ‘I Can’t Explain’, an instant mod-classic. The track was later added to their full debut record, My Generation, a truly era-defining album that combined the perfect mix of youthful rebellion via mod culture and R&B, which saw the band release a healthy mix of originals as well as covers by artists such as James Brown.
Right off the bat, Townshend proved to be a formidable force in the songwriting department. His talent culminated in a cross-section between pure creative energy, musical intuition, and when to play and most importantly, when not to play.
On the novelty side, Townshend is famous for smashing his guitar on stage, which became an instant signature move for the band that enthralled fans. The first time he did this was by sheer accident. Townshend recalls this life-changing moment in an interview with Rolling Stone: “It happened by complete accident the first time.
“We were just kicking around in a club which we played every Tuesday and I was playing the guitar and it hit the ceiling. It broke and it kind of shocked me ’cause I wasn’t ready for it to go. I didn’t particularly want it to go but it went.”
What started as an accident, grew into iconic stage antics that would be emulated by countless others in the years to come. Townshend added to this point, saying, “it kind of grew from there, we’d go to another town and people would say ‘Oh yea, we heard that you smashed a guitar.’ It built and built and built and built and built and built until one day, a very important daily newspaper came to see us and said, ‘Oh, we hear you’re the group that smashes their guitars up. Well, we hope you’re going to do it tonight, because we’re from the Daily Mail. If you do, you’ll probably make the front pages.”
It is important to note just how significant Townshend’s stage antics influenced his literal guitar playing, to the point where it influenced his playing style. His minimalist approach was further developed from his notion that “‘all right, you’re not capable of doing it musically, you’ve got to do it visually,’ I became a huge, visual thing. In fact, I forgot all about the guitar because my visual thing was more my music than the actual guitar,” Townshend also said in the Rolling Stone.
Townshend would later incorporate other styles of music and guitar playing into the songwriting for The Who. What began as mostly English beat music heavily informed by American R&B, would evolve into a very distinct 1970s sound that we now call ‘classic rock’. Townshend further developed his playing from American country music (as many British bands did in the ’70s). He went from predominately using a Fender Stratocaster to using a Gibson Les Paul.
“I find it astounding, and I find it hard to believe if anyone ever says that they rate me as a guitarist at all. Although I dig my guitar playing, I think it’s kind of an obvious situation; I play what I want to play within my own restrictions,” Townshend said about people revering him as a brilliant guitar player.
Adding, “I play simply and tastefully and I don’t play like I do on the stage. I don’t play big chords and I don’t smash the guitar around. I just do the things which I feel are well within my capabilities as a rhythmic musician.”
While Townshend doesn’t consider himself a ‘guitarist’, as much as a composer and multi-instrumentalist, his style and influence are undeniable nevertheless. We looked into the top five greatest isolated guitar tracks from The Who, which gave us just a taste of what Townshend can do after all the layers are stripped away.
Isolated guitar tracks by Pete Townshend
One of the most iconic guitar tracks by Pete Townshend, the guitarist provides a masterclass in leading the song in its rhythmic glory. Townshend was brilliant at interlacing acoustic guitar parts with twangy yet full-bodied electric overtones.
This was the last song Townshend wrote for the first rock opera ever made, called Tommy. While the guitar maestro was writing the song, he wasn’t entirely sure how the game of pinball was going to play into the rock opera as a theme — it would, however, became one of the main themes of the musical.
If the ‘Pinball Wizard’ wasn’t preconceived as a main part of Tommy, then how did it up becoming part of it? Townshend and the rest of The Who realised at the time how important the press were and ensured they would curry some favour. Music critic, Nik Cohn was scheduled to come to review Tommy and Townshend knew very well how much Cohn liked pinball, so the story goes.
He planned to write ‘Pinball Wizard’ to win a favourable review — it worked. But more than that, Townshend wrote one of the most iconic rock songs in the process, mostly defined by his guitar track.
‘Who Are You’
When listening to the isolated guitar track of ‘Who Are You’ — the title track off their 1978 album — one will realiSe just how much the idea of ‘less is more’ rings true. The track played alone, is sporadic and a little chaotic, and illustrates Townshend uncanny ability to push and pull with his right hand; the nuance of the guitar track is all in his rhythm playing.
There is very little sustain on his tone; once he hits the note, he instantly palm-mutes it to cut off the natural reverberation of the plucked string. It sounds as if he’s using the neck pickup on his electric guitar, creating a more dense sound with the added effect of a fuzz distortion pedal.
As you listen to the isolated guitar track, it sounds incomplete and too disjointed, but it interplays perfectly with the rest of the band. You can tell that Townshend is not only the composer, but he is also thinking of the entire band as an orchestra, with each instrument being as vitally important as the next.
‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’
The guitar track for ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ utilises the same trappings as ‘Who Are You’; this song was released in 1971, and it sets the scene for seven years later when the band released Who are You. It all started when Pete Townshend was gifted a 1957 Gretch hollow body guitar and a Fender Bandmaster amplifier by none other than Joe Walsh of The Eagles.
Townshend wasn’t too impressed, initially, with the Gretsch 6120 model. “I opened the case, and it was bright orange, and I thought, ‘Ugh! It’s horrible. I hate it,'” Townshend recalled, according to Sweetwater. Walsh then also added another important element to the guitar, allegedly saying to Townshend, “and I bought you a Fender Bandmaster amplifier with three 10s, so the ohmage is crazy, and an Edwards pedal steel volume pedal.”
From an engineer’s perspective, when recording a guitar track, mic placement is critical. If one were to recreate Townshend’s historical guitar part of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, the right gear is only one piece of the puzzle.
As one moves a condenser recording microphone further away from the amp while playing the guitar through that amp, one will find a significant difference depending on how close or how far away the microphone is. You’ll notice a ‘phaser’ kind of effect; as the microphone is pulled away from the amp, the tone becomes more metallic, hollow and more spacious. The task of recreating Townshend’s tone is nuanced with painstaking detail; one inch of movement can make a world’s difference.
‘Behind Blue Eyes’
This isolated Townshend track changes the pace of our list so far. ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ reveals the guitar player in a more vulnerable state — it is an acoustic track. Townshend said that he wrote the track about “how lonely it is to be powerful.” He put himself in the shoes of a villain, perhaps for martyrdom-related reasons.
Most of the track is one acoustic guitar with an added electric track later on in the song. The track starts with an arpeggiated acoustic guitar in the key of E-minor.
The song ironically villainises the narrator (Townshend) for doing, what he perceives, to be the right thing. The guitar part, like the words, is based on meditation, as Townshend turned down temptation from advances from a fan.
On this iconic track from The Who, famously mistaken as ‘Teenage Wasteland’, Townshend used this signature guitar sound from 1971’s Who’s Next. As with ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, Townshend used the same gear given to him by Joe Walsh.
In large part due to Townshend’s guitar track, ‘Baba O’Riley’ has become an instantly recognisable hit for The Who. What was originally intended as a follow-up to The Who’s Tommy, the songs that Townshend wrote were intended for a new rock opera called Lifehouse.
Townshend crumpled underneath mounting pressure placed on him, and instead, the songs fell into a loose collection of songs, culminating in Who’s Next. Listen to Townshend’s master style of playing, which is always simple but hits the nail on the head every time: